Community gardening can also grow a bounty of physical and mental health benefits, a CU study finds

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Patti Parkis trims basil in her plot at the Horse Barn Community Garden at 33rd and Arapahoe Streets in Denver, July 14, 2023.

Horse Barn Community Garden is in Five Points’ Curtis Park, near downtown Denver. This is where you’ll often find Charlotte Griffin, watering the vegetables.

“Onion and garlic and chives are coming up now,” Griffin said as she looked out over a series of garden plots.

The 67-year-old lives three blocks away. Since she retired as a truck driver, an at times stressful occupation, she’s found an enriching respite here. When asked about the health benefits for you of gardening, Griffin, a garden leader at the site, said simply, “keeps my peace of mind together.”

How you’re doing when you garden is the focus of the work of a visitor here: Jill Litt, a CU environmental studies professor. Her research explores the way we build communities and how that affects health and well-being, in particular, “how green space can have an impact on health and how we can leverage it for public health promotion and disease prevention.”

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Charlotte Griffin, at right, waters one of her plots at the Horse Barn Community Garden at 33rd and Arapahoe Streets in Denver, July 14, 2023.

Figuring out how to quantify gardening's benefits

A great idea that most people can get on board with the concept that gardening has social benefits. The trouble is, in the past, the research has been a bit squishy — observational and hard to quantify. It leaves a fundamental question a bit unanswered.

“Is it the garden?” asked Litt. “Or is it that people already have these habits and they bring them to the garden, but they would show health benefits no matter where they were at?”

Litt’s idea: Study community gardening by “actually doing a randomized control trial.”

Litt said she thinks it’s the first-ever randomized-controlled trials of community gardeners. She and her team randomly put people in two groups.

“(One) that would receive a garden plot, and the other that would be in a control environment. So that means they didn't garden,” she said.

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Jill Litt, left, is a CU Boulder environmental studies professor. Linda Appel Lipsius, right, is the CEO of the nonprofit Denver Urban Gardens, which was a partner in Litt's study.

And Litt enlisted new gardeners.

“We were able to look at whether you could learn to garden and be successful at it and have health benefits,” she said.

They recruited nearly 300 adults, most from low-income Denver households, who were new to gardening. They assigned half to a community garden in the spring. 

By fall, the gardeners ate 7 percent more fiber a day. They got 42 more minutes of physical activity a week — two ways known to reduce the risk of cancer and chronic diseases. Litt says this provides “the evidence to show that green spaces and cities can be part of our health story.”

The study was published earlier this year in The Lancet Planetary Health.

Researchers from the Colorado School of Public Health, Colorado State University and Michigan State University also contributed to the research. The American Cancer Society funded the research. 

'The garden becomes a bridge to allow people to participate in things that are good for their health'

Litt said the data could give clinicians or care professionals information to inform options to recommend to patients.

“This could become something that we’re calling ‘nature-based social prescribing,’ ” Litt said. “So the garden becomes a bridge to allow people to participate in things that are good for their health.”

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John Anduri is a gardener from Denver and three-time cancer survivor.

That concept appeals to John Anduri, a gardener from Denver. He’s survived bouts with cancer three times, most recently colon cancer. 

“They're saying, you know, ‘Exercise and what you eat really matters.’ So that was a real wake-up call,” he said.

Anduri, who is 70, was not part of the study. He said he’d never gardened before his diagnosis, then discovered a garden at a nearby elementary school. 

“So I've had a plot there now going into my sixth year. And it's fun,” Anduri said. “Meeting other gardeners … it's a community. I've met people from Syria, Korea, from Mexico,”

Now the former minister, journalist and educator can tell you all about broccoli and cabbage as cancer fighters. 

“It's not just eating a balanced diet,” he said, “but it's actually, I think food is medicine.”

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The beehive at the Horse Barn Community Garden at 33rd and Arapahoe Streets in Denver, July 14, 2023.

The research could be a boon to community gardens

The study could have real-world implications, said Linda Appel Lipsius, CEO of the nonprofit Denver Urban Gardens, a study partner. It operates a network of 193 community gardens across six metro Denver counties, including more than 60 school-based community gardens.

“We live in a data-driven world,” she said. “Once you get some data, once you get some clinically sort of substantiated numbers to go behind it, it validates what you do.”

She said she hoped the study encourages broader community support for gardening. 

“I could see cities coming to us,” to add more gardens to help the health of their residents. “I mean, it's good for the city.”

“I think in order for government organizations to move forward with positive change in our food networks, they really want these numbers,” said Kristi Hatakka, a garden leader at Greenway Community Garden and compost coordinator for Denver Urban Garden. “Having a study, conducted in the way that it was, that will be reviewed by the scientific community, I think is gonna be very valuable.”

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Butterflies rest at the Horse Barn Community Garden at 33rd and Arapahoe Streets in Denver, July 14, 2023.

The group of study participants who gardened received a free community garden plot, seeds and seedlings, and an intro gardening course through Denver Urban Gardens. 

Participants did report that their stress and anxiety levels fell. Charlotte Griffin, who was not part of the study, says besides growing a bounty of veggies, she's also cultivating friendships. It’s the community part in "community garden."

“I like to greet them, go to them, you know, 'what's been going on with you, how you doing, what you're planting?'

Researcher Jill Litt says community gardening is one part of a growing international movement to promote the health benefits of nature-based solutions. Litt says she’s seen partnerships spring up, and the medical system, practices and clinics in Colorado and beyond, “embracing this idea and desperately seeking the evidence to support decisions to go in this direction.”

Now Litt says she’s excited that she has the data to back it up.

Editor's Note: Linda Appel Lipsius is a member of CPR's board of directors.